LIMS for Transportation Agencies
A Unique Solution
Materials Testing and Management
For Transportation Agency Road and Bridge Construction
General principles of road and bridge construction are common among transportation agencies, but the business practices and implementation can vary substantially based on an agency’s needs and requirements. In the end, the objective is providing cost-effective, quality, and long-lasting travel infrastructure to the public.
Many disciplines coalesce into a successful project delivery. Central to the winning formula is the use of consistent and quality materials, verified by authorized labs, certified employees, and applicable test methods. Test requirements and standards are determined by factors including the agency and its size (state, county, municipality), project type (federal, state, local), and the specific materials being used. Yet one of the fundamental differences between agencies and their approach to materials testing, is the decision to maintain an internal lab or outsource material testing to third-party service providers.
Let’s talk for a minute about internal materials management and the requirements of a software solutions that support the lab and the testing processes.
The term “LIMS” is short for a Laboratory Information Management System and is used loosely in its application to many industries. One size does not fit all, however. Industries have very different testing requirements, methods, and standards, and LIMS software solutions are designed to support specific requirements. For example, the testing requirements for road and bridge construction materials are not the same as those for law enforcement forensics, a city’s water utility, or a pharmaceutical company.
Depending on the size and type of agency (i.e., state, county, municipality), materials testing may range from a few basic tests to hundreds of tests including sieve analysis, concrete core samples, mix designs, etc., -- functionality very specific to road and bridge construction. As part of the process, agencies also manage equipment, facilities, manufacturers, employee certifications, etc. So, when discussing a LIMS software solution specific to these agencies, we are really describing a material testing and management solution. Figure 1 provides an overview of typical functionality required for transportation agency materials testing and management.
Generally speaking, functionality required by transportation agencies is:
Material sample logging and tracking
Sample test creation and testing
Personnel certification tracking
Facility and equipment information management
Material Sample Logging and Tracking
The central role of a material sample is emphasized in the overall material management process, contributing to the user friendly and intuitive feel of a solution. This promotes efficiency for users by allowing the day-to-day materials activities to be managed from a single location within the application. From one window, all samples related to a contract, a project, a user, or a material, should be easily viewed with their associated attributes, assignments, test status and other key information related to the sample. The solution should allow the user to capture sample information by individual sample or bulk entry for larger sampling lots. Templates simplify the capture of required information for samples based on material type and description. For example, when logging a concrete sample, in addition to standard information fields like the sample date, sampler, lot number, etc., it might also require information specific to that material and material definition like a core ID, a mix type, or a disposal date based on a pre-configured concrete template.
Test Creation and Testing
Beyond the mechanical processes of tracking information related to samples, the agency’s ability to easily create and modify tests and apply them to samples and other quality control entities like facilities and equipment is important.
Oliver Wendall Holmes the famous American jurist and legal scholar once said “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn't give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” The point here is the importance of making complex things simple.
Simplicity in test creation begins with an easy-to-use question creation engine that supports multiple question types including look up tables, multiple choice, short answer, essay, linked questions, etc. Also essential is the ability to easily create complex equations from a calculation engine that supports Excel functions. These tools allow agencies to create their required AASHTO, ASTM, and internal tests and apply them to samples.
Samples and tests come together when the sampling log recognizes specific material types assigned to a sample and automatically assignes the appropriate, pre-created test(s). Tests are then executed to collect the required data, complete the necessary calculations, and determine the pass/fail status of the material. Validation of a test should also be available for tests performed by testers that may not hold a valid certification in specific test cases.
Another benefit of flexible test creation is the ability to create and apply tests to any information gathering tasks where questioning is used. This takes the testing solution beyond material testing alone and provides a solution that can be applied to facilities, equipment, manufacturers, or other agency assets and entities.
Personnel certification tracking
Test results are only as reliable as the processes used and the qualifications of the testing personnel. The agency’s material testing solution should also track laboratory personnel including training and qualifications held by each. Qualification dates and duration should be tracked, and notifications provided when certifications expire or need renewal. Second step approval or test validation may be included in the process for tests that are assigned and performed by personnel that don’t hold a current certification for that area.
Facility and Equipment Information Management
Laboratory assets like instrumentation and other equipment should be tracked and, in some cases, noted for maintenance and other tasks. The software solution should provide the means to record dates and other equipment information, and provide notification of expiration, certification, calibration, cleaning, disposal, and other information required for operation and testing accuracy.
In summary, transportation agencies that choose to track and test material samples internally should, as a key part of the operation, have a reliable and full-featured materials testing and management software solution to coordinate the process. Finding the right solutions includes identifying the internal processes and compliance objectives, then finding a cost effective and suitable solution that will increase the agency’s efficiency.